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Inside the backroom deal to put Giorgia Meloni in power – POLITICO

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ROME – On a grueling summer evening, just days after Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government collapsed, Italy’s right-wing political leaders gathered in a private room inside Rome’s Palazzo Montecitorio, the lower house of parliament.

The group included some of Europe’s most vibrant and outspoken political dissidents, such as Silvio Berlusconi, the 85-year-old billionaire Lotario and former prime minister; Matteo Salvini, 49, a disturbing former interior minister and leader of the Anti-Immigration League; And Georgia Meloni, the proud, feisty 45-year-old responsible for the Brotherhood in far-right Italy.

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Gathered around a long meeting table, they set out to plan a joint electoral strategy as a right-wing bloc. It was a goal that required them to put aside personal agendas and political differences in order to unite the right to a common bid for power.

The stakes were greater for Meloni in the four hours of negotiations that night. If talks go her way, she will emerge in first place to be Italy’s next prime minister. But as the least experienced front-line leader around the table – and the only woman – there was no guarantee that the two big men in the room would agree to her terms.

In Sunday’s election, Meloni was victorious and is now preparing to become Italy’s first female prime minister. But while the right held firm during the election campaign, Meloni’s dramatic victory came at the expense of Salvini’s party. How did she seal her will to her two main partners during those fateful conversations — and how long would the honeymoon last?

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big lunch

Conspiracy between right-wing parties began even before the elections were called. Eight days ago in Berlusconi’s luxury villa, Salvini and others held talks over lunch about whether they should stay in Draghi’s government or withdraw support for his coalition, leading to an election. Meloni phoned and in the end, Draghi’s fate was decided. He resigned as Prime Minister and snap elections were scheduled for September 25.

Italy is routinely governed by coalitions of opponents, with no single party receiving enough votes to win a full majority under its electoral system. With a full election campaign underway, the party leaders had two urgent decisions to make: what would be their strategy for fighting different seats to increase their bloc’s chances of winning power, and who would their candidate for prime minister be if they were successful?

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the right-wing Forza Italia party Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

The trio of right-wing heavyweights met on July 27 at Palazzo Montecitorio. In the Sala Salvatori, the conference and reception hall, they sat at a long table under a majestic plaque from the Battle of Lepanto, the naval engagement in which the Holy Pope’s coalition defeated the Ottoman Empire. It is an allegory for right-wing politicians who consider it the mother of victories over Islam.

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The choice of location had a different symbolism for Meloni. The right-wing coalition usually holds its meetings in one of Berlusconi’s luxury villas in Rome or Milan, reflecting his role as founder of the group.

But Meloni was tired of Berlusconi taking power by playing host, and this time he insisted on a more professional place. It was a small victory, but it was significant, and it showed her growing influence.

For months, Meloni had been growing in popularity in the polls, at the expense of the two more experienced men in the room. Now, she wanted Salvini and Berlusconi to explicitly affirm the understanding that the party that wins the most votes in the elections will nominate the candidate for prime minister. Polls suggested it was her.

Agreement was not automatic. The three leaders shared the same goals of electoral victory for the right and knew they needed each other. But the official account that the meeting took place in “an atmosphere of perfect harmony and cooperation” was not credible, according to an aide.

Meloni and her team were wary. They feared that Salvini and Berlusconi would reject her candidacy, and might join forces to say it would be too far-right and could upset the European Union. Before the meeting began, she gave them an ultimatum: if they prevented her from driving, the whole deal would be terminated and she would run away on her own.

‘If we can’t agree [the premiership] “It wouldn’t make sense for us to judge together,” she said the day before the meeting.

One possibility was up in the air for a vote among right-wing MPs to choose the candidate for prime minister, rather than simply putting forward the head of the party with the most support.

But its allies have come to the sobering conclusion that changing the rules to prevent it cannot be justified. Even together they may not have the votes to outnumber two million. In addition, if they do a better job than expected, discussions can always be reopened, in their opinion.

Dividing the seats was more difficult. Amid rising tensions, talks were halted twice during the evening so that the two sides could hold private consultations. Meloni wanted her candidates to run as candidates in half of the seats, reflecting the most recent polls, while her allies wanted to use older, more favored polls.

Over the course of four hours, a deal was finally struck. The three main right-wing parties agreed to field joint candidates in 221 bypassed constituencies, making them virtually unbeatable in the face of a divided left. They also resolved to unite behind whichever leader received the most votes. Officials were sent away to prepare a joint statement.

When he eventually left late in the evening, Giancarlo Giorgetti, the second seed in the league, called the agreement a “miracle”.

‘miracle’

In many ways, the summit marked the first victory of Meloni’s premiership, effectively capturing it as leader of the right. It was an astonishing achievement for the leader of a party that won just 4 per cent of the vote in the 2018 elections. Political commentator Marcelo Sorgi wrote in an op-ed for La Stampa that the deal was a “stepping stone for Meloni’s leadership”.

Enrico Letta, the leader of the Democrats, said the meeting was historic for the wrong reasons: “Berlusconi and Salvini basically decided to become vassals and put themselves in Meloni’s hands once and for all.”

Pierluigi Testa of the Trinita dei Monti think tank in Rome said that recognition of Meloni as a leader helped her rise further in the polls during the campaign, while stunting the growth of her allies. “It strengthened its leadership.”

The deal was also crucial to their victory over the left.

Letta’s goal as a Democratic leader was to create a broad left-wing coalition, and he spent a year and a half working to unite the Social Democrats and the populist 5-Star Movement.

Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta | Eric Pyrmont/AFP via Getty Images

But their alliance collapsed amid mutual accusations as the Draghi government collapsed. A separate alliance with the center failed when Letta struck a deal with the far-left parties.

“The Right has always disintegrated and then reunited again for over 20 years,” Testa said. “Even if they are conflicted when it comes to elections, they see it as a business and they are running together. They are pragmatic.”

Brothers of Italy founder Ignazio La Russa claimed it was “inevitable” that there would be an agreement. He told Politico: “If you rule together in 20 districts, there is no need not to unite. It is normal and natural.”

While the right has found harmony in time for the elections, with the voting over, it is unlikely that peace among the leaders will last for long. Parties within the coalition take divergent positions on many issues – including the cost-of-living crisis, sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war, and immigration.

It’s only a matter of time before Salvini, in particular, starts getting excited, said Daniel Albertazi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey.

League leader Matteo Salvini | Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

“There will be a honeymoon period, because the voters fully support the new government, so it’s dangerous to hit them right away,” Albertazi said. But after about six months, [Salvini] He will start criticizing from within – on issues like not lowering taxes fast enough or penalties. This is the way the League is governed: one foot inside and one foot outside, in opposition.”

Despite the agreement reached at the summit, Meloni’s partners can still support her on the condition that they secure the ministerial positions they want in the negotiations over the coming weeks. As the votes were counted, Berlusconi’s deputy, Antonio Tajani, who had been nominated as a possible foreign minister, appeared to have put the decision into question again, saying: “We have no bias against [Meloni as prime minister]But the decision must be taken at a meeting between Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi.”

A deal is a deal. So it is not.

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